Breaking The Rules

Paul Heagen Purposeful Leadership & Living Leave a Comment

By now, most everyone has cemented an opinion—informed or ill-informed, reasoned or shrill as it may be—about what happened on that United flight last week.

Perhaps now, if the frothing has subsided a bit, it might be worth reflecting on what was really in play and at stake for anyone else in leadership. Whether your ire is centered on the flight attendants, the passenger, the airport security people or the clumsy and ill-considered early statement by CEO Oscar Munoz, the seeds of this debacle were sown long ago.

It’s the difference between principle-based leadership and rules-based leadership.

The history of United Airlines since its chaotic merger with Continental five years ago has, by most accounts, been a testament to bureaucratic overload. In an effort to streamline operations and ensure a more consistent workflow across the two entities, nothing escaped the attention of the policy writers. In what most insiders call a punitive, poisoned atmosphere of brutal cost-cutting (and personal hypocrisy) by then-CEO Jeff Smisek, the signal was clear that you go by the book or you may go by the wayside.

Granted, if you’re NASA or running a nuclear plant, strict protocols are what you eat for breakfast. However, to think you can police behavior, or anticipate every scenario, throughout a sprawling operation by having a rule for everything harkens to the scene in Forrest Gump where his girlfriend Jenny is furiously hurling stones at her childhood home where she suffered sexual abuse.

“Sometimes,” Forrest tells her, “there just aren’t enough rocks.”

Polices that are divorced from principle are soulless – dictates that can have the perverse effect of demanding people act against their own common sense. Policies that are birthed and grounded in basic values – integrity, respect, dignity – help an organization breathe naturally, rather than choke under stress.

Much of the rancor over the United episode centered on arguments over exactly what were the terms and conditions of the parties, whether certain responses were allowable.

Relationships and values do not have fine print.

Most policy manuals in most business can be discarded in exchange for a simple statement:

Do the right thing. 

The fewer words we feel we need to add to that, the more we are moving toward being principle-based, rather than rules-based.

At times of stress or when people are facing difficult choices, doing the right thing may be hard, but it shouldn’t be hard to remember.

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